Thursday, June 12, 2008

The End of Food

Paul Roberts, author of the latest book to be titled "The End of Food," was at the Washington Ethical Society for an interview last night. I was not. Twice I ventured into rush-hour traffic for a trip that might take 15 minutes at any other time of day and twice I turned around and went home, stymied by roads clogged with vehicles headed in the same direction. Finally I gave up: It seemed preposterous that I should be spewing carbon to hear a talk about how our industrial food system is foundering over the high price of oil.

Fortunately, Roberts also appeared on the local public radio station earlier in the afternoon. Author of a previous book titled "The End of Oil," his riff on food could not have been better timed, as an entire nation agonizes over the loss of its tomatoes because of a salmonella bug that proves impossible to trace.

Deadly tomatoes and spinach, millions of pounds of tainted beef recalled, mad cow disease--such is the price of a food system that has lost all sense of human scale and accountability. And as we wave goodbye to cheap oil, food prices spiral out of control, threatening the lives of a billion people or more.

The so-called "Green Revolution"--based on artificial fertilizers and diesel powered machines--was supposed to feed the world. It brought us an abundance of cheap food but now, barely two generations later, we are tallying the costs: soil destroyed, air and water fouled, family farms decimated, rural communities obliterated, Third World farmers facing starvation. The food itself, we learn, is not good for us. It's making us fat and unhealthy. In some cases it is lethal. Corporations have made out like bandits feeding us transfats, bovine growth hormones and high fructose corn syrup. As recently as a year ago you could have bought stock in Monsanto and doubled your money. But for the average eater, cheap food has come with a terrible price. And in the end, the world still does not have enough.

This does seem to be the ultimate paradox: As a society, we have forgotten how to feed ourselves without destroying the planet. In a competition for people's bellies, the profit motive rules over the collective good. Ten thousand years of learning agriculture have left us not much wiser, staring over the edge of a precipice.

For a longer take on Robert's book, I suggest a recent New Yorker essay. The issues are so big, they've left a pall of silence over the political landscape. Our "leaders" seem helpless and without a clue. The public, meanwhile, is sleep-walking into dark and dangerous territory, while the popular media are just now coming to grips with issues that were foretold decades ago. They scramble to write stories about people like us, people turning their yards into vegetable gardens.

There's never been a better time to park your car in the garage and putter with your tomatoes.


Nomadic said...

The food recalls are what prompted me to get serious and start my square foot garden this year. I'm so thankful for every food plant that I'm growing, but especially so for my tomato plants!

Meg Wolff said...

Thanks for the great post. I bet more people wish they had planted tomatoes this year.

Ed Bruske said...

N, the number of recalls and food scares really are getting a bit ridiculous, no? That's the industrial food system for you....

Meg, my hunch is more people are planting gardens and growing their own food. It's so much cheaper, and better for you.